Middle Collegiate Church in East Village begins to heal after devastating fire

Their sanctuary may be in burnt ruins, but the congregation at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village upholds the faith and their ministry.

The day after a six-alarm fire broke out at a nearby structure and gutted their 128-year-old church, Middle Collegiate Church scheduled an 11:45 a.m. worship service, which was held virtually for the pandemic. According to Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, the church’s senior pastor, the service offers residents a way to mourn the devastation but also to pray for greater unity and rebuilding in the future.

Lewis thanked the many New Yorkers who offered their sympathy and support after the devastating December 5 fire. Middle Collegiate Church is one of the earliest religious congregations in New York City history and a beacon of the local progressive movement – welcoming people of all backgrounds, regardless of race, color or sexual orientation.

The building may have been destroyed by the fire, but the church itself – its people – remains intact and united in love and faith, the Reverend Amanda Ashcraft, minister executive director of the Middle Collegiate, as she surveyed the damage.

Reverend Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, minister executive director of the Middle Collegiate Church.Photo of Tequila Minsky
Across 2nd Avenue from their beloved church, amid sadness and future uncertainty, Sr. Minister Jacqueline Lewis (in red hat) sings with a choir.Photo of Tequila Minsky

“God is showing us, with the first responders and volunteers who brought food and coffee and with the many ways this community is already showing up and coming together after this huge tragedy,” Ashcraft said. “We also know and have learned, even in new ways since COVID began, that God is in no way contained by four walls and a church building. This incredible movement of love and justice that is Middle Church will continue to manifest itself in different ways after this tragedy.

Asked about the future of the church, Ashcraft said it remains unclear given not only the fire but also the unrest related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she claimed the congregation would continue.

“I know this is really, really hard to swallow — especially in a year that has already seen so much racial, economic and climate injustice,” Ashcraft said. “We are still living in the midst of this horrible global pandemic and for this to happen to your religious community, you really wonder what is going on. We can say, even so, that everything will be fine and that we will rise from the ashes.

According to Reverend Lewis, the outpouring of support from people across the city and around the world for the Middle Collegiate Church has been humbling and greatly appreciated.

Lewis invited all on Twitter to participate in a church conference on social justice in April 2021, and to donate not only to Middle Church, but also to the Women’s Prison Association, which operates the nearby Hopper House where 22 women have been housed and have also were damaged by the fire.

But the reverend also suggested the church could also use more spiritual support for its mission.

“Many have asked how to help @middlechurch: first and foremost you can put your shoulder next to ours in the fight against racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all culpable hatred,” Lewis said.

The 11:45 a.m. church service will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube, and middlechurch.org.

Totally gutted and devastated. Historic central collegiate destroyed by a fire which broke out around 4:30 am. Saturday morning.Photo of Tequila Minsky
Nine hours later, firefighters are still adding water to the smoldering embers of the vacant 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street building where the Dec. 5, 2020, fire started.Photo of Tequila Minsky

With reporting by Tequila Minsky

Martha J. Finley